undconsorten LLP

HR for Business Impact
Hays Steilberg, Executive Vice President Management Development, on the integration of talent management and strategy at Bertelsmann.


People have claimed before that some HR functions are disconnected from actual business. At Bertelsmann, with our support, you have also taken a different path. How did this come about?

Hays Steilberg
Executive Vice President Management Development, Bertelsmann


Hays Steilberg: With the motto 'Strategic Exploration', we integrate strategic core issues into our human resources work. On the one hand, we are concerned with assigning our talents great tasks. On the other hand, we want to benefit from the perspectives of our talents on core issues.

When we set up our talent architecture, we reflected on what we are doing with talents – especially those at the top of the talent pyramid.

“We want to leverage the potential of 'the best and brightest' in the Group.”

By entrusting our top people with our strategically important topics and questions, we are able to tap the full potential as well as meet the expectations of our talents in this area.

In particular, our Executive Board benefits from the fact that we create a space in which the perspectives of our top talents can be candidly expressed. This is because managers in large organizations have the typical dilemma of being surrounded by people who, whether consciously or unconsciously, tend to back up the boss's opinions and actions. We break through this 'bubble' or 'echo chamber', as they say today, and give our board the opportunity to learn things that have so far slipped their attention.

Do you have any concrete examples about the strategic results reached by these talent programs?

Hays Steilberg: I have two favorite examples. The first is the initial cohort from a top management pool – this was more than three years ago. They had the task to think about the company's attitude towards our most significant frenemies, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Plus X, as part of a board dialogue which took place over several months. Of course, we supported the talents with various fact packs on core features, business models and insights into the current strategic business relationships with our division. We also provided them with a 'frenemy framework' for structured problem solving on this complex topic (see chart).

The observation and recommendation that had the most lasting effect on me, and you could say it was nearly the simplest, was as follows: these frenemies force us to change business models and the implications are so profound that there has to be a close cross-business exchange between management. Today, Thomas Rabe and our top management meet with these players twice a year to really go through the most relevant strategic issues, explain our positions and make the working relationship a little more equal. Of course, this also includes topics such as intellectual property, dealing with advertising space or tax matters, so topics that are truly relevant and sometimes difficult to discuss.

The second example is the work on relevant trends and topics sparked off by a meeting of our Chairman's Council, which was held in London at the time. We identified big data, data analytics and machine learning as critical topics for us and discussed them more intensively. This initiative has resulted in various Group-wide initiatives. One example is a working group with four workstreams dedicated exclusively to data and tech. In addition, with our MediaN program, we have developed a rotation and development program for career starters that focuses specifically on talent from this market. We now have a worldwide network and interact with universities and other network groups.

Deep-dive Talent Management at Bertelsmann

At Bertelsmann, the four building blocks of performance and development management, learning, talent pools and succession planning are closely interlinked. Group valuations are separate from rewards and are used more to identify development opportunities, for example, through talent pools or other learning programs. To date, there are a total of four pools that build on each other and are systematically used for working on the Group's key strategic issues.

In a large, decentralized group, networking is an important focus for getting to know sister units or other regions. As a result, pools typically start with a team building kick-off. Alumni and other mentors as well as SiteVisits then support the "poolies" with developing their strategic project. The individual development of talents is fostered by a broad set of measures which, in addition to diagnostics and feedback and various learning opportunities (from small nuggets to Bertelsmann University programs closely linked to talent management), are above all based on transparent communication and support with leveraging career opportunities.

We have already talked a lot about the added value for the business. What is the advantage of your talent management transformation for you and your team?

Hays Steilberg: First, we now have a completely different degree of transparency about the relevant people and talents in the Group than we did in the past. Second, we are now encountering a sense of openness in the businesses. This means that they accept – and no longer question – the fact that we also approach employees, be it because of a particular development offer or a vacancy that the home business unit may not know about. Third, it is also interesting for HR to work directly on strategic topics, in other words, not as mere administrators or vicarious agents, but to become truly involved in shaping them.

“I am convinced that the strategy you create is only as good as the quality of its implementation. And for that, you need the right people.”
Last question: what were your 'aha moments' in this process that you would like to share?

Hays Steilberg: First of all, you should have clear targets for what you actually want to achieve with such measures. You don't do talent management for the sake of talent management. It is fair to say that it is something which fosters bonding and loyalty and makes people feel like the company cares. But if it's nothing more than that, then I think the staff will eventually say that it has a stale aftertaste. You should really ask yourself why you're doing this and what change you want to bring about with it. I think that talent management can also be used for ideas, observations and impulses that come from the operational business to move the company forward.

I believe that the choice of the people taking part is crucial. First, the relevant businesses and markets must be represented; second, you need people who are willing and have the ambition to change and shape something; and third, they must have the necessary skills to make a meaningful contribution.

“We simply have to find those individuals who have the right qualities not only to develop ideas, but also to carry things further into the organization.”

It is also already a disruptive process where there is usually still natural and understandable resistance, at least in any complex organization. These are sensitivities, it changes local processes, encroaches on the respective suborganizations and calls for a lot of communication. In retrospect, this requires relatively long stamina and consistency, but of course also a certain degree of flexibility along the way. It helps if you have a clear vision of what you actually want to achieve with such measures. What do I do, what do I want to change and how would I determine the success of that change? Like I said before: you don't make talent management for the sake of talent management.